In a powerful statement Thursday, a residential school survivor said she and other survivors were repeatedly ignored whenever they spoke out about thousands of children who went missing after being forced to attend the schools.
“We had tried to mention over and over and over that there are many children missing who did not reach home,” said Evelyn Camille, who was forced to attend Kamloops Indian Residential School until the 50s. “Truth and reconciliation, I often wondered what the hell does that mean?... Do they want to hear the truth? Really? We have tried to tell them the truth.”
In May, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc confirmed it found the probable remains of 215 children, some as young as 3, buried under the former Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School.
They’re “children who have experienced unthinkable circumstances leading to their death and whose remains were placed in unmarked graves,” said Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir.
Residential schools were used by the Canadian government and churches to forcibly assimilate 150,000 Inuit, First Nations, and Métis children. Sweeping abuses were common, and children were routinely punished for speaking their languages and expressing their cultures.
“Residential schools were specifically built to take the Indian out of us; to take away our language, culture, and traditions,” Camille said. “But it did not work… Our culture, language, and way of life is still with us. It'll always remain with us. Our children must know who we are.”
Ground penetrating radar was used alongside Indigenous protocols and knowledge to locate unmarked graves at an apple orchard on the former Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds.
“It’s unfortunate it took science to wake people up,” said Lisa Hodgetts, the president of the Canadian Archeological Association, considering Indigenous people have been exposing the realities of residential schools and colonialism for decades. The facts are already cemented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, published after an investigation into residential schools and their ongoing legacy.
The location near Kamloops Indian Residential School, the largest in Canada’s Indian Affairs system, was chosen because oral histories from knowledge keepers, as well as a juvenile rib bone and tooth found in the area, signalled the likely presence of unmarked graves, said Sarah Beaulieu, a ground penetrating radar specialist from University of the Fraser Valley who has worked with the First Nation throughout the investigation.
While ground penetrating radar is not intended to give exact numbers and results—forensic investigation with excavation will have to be used to get more specificity—Beaulieu said that based on her experience and the information shared by knowledge keepers, she expects the presence of hundreds of unmarked graves in the area.
So far, 200 are estimated, she said.
“This investigation has barely scratched the surface,” Beaulieu said, adding that only a small section of the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds have been surveyed so far.
Going forward, Casimir said her community will review student records from Kamloops Indian Residential School. The onus is on the federal government and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Catholic order that ran the institutions, to secure and share the records “openly and fully,” Casimir said.
“We call on provincial and federal governments to provide immediate and ongoing funding as we develop and implement frameworks and processes to further identity, document, maintain, and protect the remains of the children found buried,” she said.
Her community is also seeking a healing centre that reflects Secwépemc customs, and is pursuing an oral testimony project. Oral tellings from survivors have come forward from across the country willing to share information about deaths, missing children, unmarked graves, and more.
The Canadian Archeological Association has set up a working group, led by Métis archeologist Kisha Supernant, that will support Indigenous nations who want to investigate residential school sites and unmarked graves.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was able to confirm that about 4,100 residential school students were killed. That figure, though, is likely much higher, experts say.
More than 1,000 unmarked graves have been confirmed in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Manitoba since May.
“This is a crime against humanity; this is a crime against children. The UN has called this genocide. We call this genocide,” said new Assembly of First Nations Chief RoseAnne Archibald. “We have always known from the very beginning (of residential schools) that many of our children did not return.”
Anyone experiencing distress or pain as a result of residential schools can call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419). It’s available 24/7.
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